Wildcrafting is the hunt and harvest of a plant from the wild. Some call this foraging. Wildcrafting is an amazing skill that can benefit anyone. However, there is an etiquette that should be followed for respectful, safe, and sustainable harvesting.
Rules of Wildcrafting.
My rule of wildcrafting: Be present, respectful, educated, and wise.
Jim McDonald’s first two 1st rules of wildcrafting (yes, you read that correctly, he has two equally worthy #1 rules.) The first: Be positive that the plant you are gathering is what you think it is. And the other first rule is: Always gather plants in a way that’s sustainable to the plants ecosystem they exist in.
Howie Brounstein has a very good wildcrafting checklist with 23 listings to consider prior to your harvest.
Wildcrafting is not just as simple as, “oh look, a batch of flowers! Let me get my tools”. There are some very important things to consider and possible prep work to be done.
Know what you are picking. There are so many look alike plants, and some that could lead to fatality or a hospital visit so, make 110% sure you know what you are harvesting. There are lots of reference guides. Real quick: As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I use Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of North America, and Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife: Wildflowers. I suggest that you use at least 3 sources to properly identify a plant, especially if you are attempting this all by your lonesome. Pay attention to the leaves, stems, flowers, and roots.
It is imperative that you are not harvesting a plant that is a Species At-Risk. The United Plant Savers has a free list of plants on both the threatened and endangered list. DO NOT PICK THESE PLANTS.
Also, check with your State’s Natural Heritage Program to find out which plants in your area are protect and illegal to harvest. DO NOT PICK THESE PLANTS. Consider how popular the herb has become. Popular plants have a tendency to be harvested in mass quantities without consideration to their sustainability. Check out this article by the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine on sage: “A Distress Call from the Sacred White Sage”, that talks about how the popularity of sage is threatening its very existence.
If you are adamant to use a plant that is threatened, endangered, or protected, consider cultivating it in your garden. It will save the plants in the wild and encourage growth in a brand-new place.
Get permission to harvest from public and private land. I’ve never harvested from public land so I can’t say first-hand how to go about it, but you should get a permit before attempting to harvest public land. If the land is privately owned contact the owners to get permission. Also talk to them about the area i.e. are chemicals used, any other soil contamination.
Pay attention to what is going on with the land. You don’t want to harvest for contaminated soil. Don’t harvest near roads, trails, tainted water, railroad tracks, barns, old homes, or anywhere that might be sprayed with chemicals.
Through the course of a year observe the area to see how the growth of the plants has changed. Has over harvesting harmed the plants growth? Are more growing? Has it spread to other areas? Are animals eating the herb? Once again, check out Howie Brounsteins Wildcrafting Check List, prior to wildcrafting. Whether you are new or a seasoned wildcrafter it never hurts to review etiquette every now and again.
During the Harvest.
You’ll need some gear. While out on a wildcrafting expeditions make sure to take along some brown paper bags to put your harvest in. Don’t use plastic bags or Ziploc bags. You want your harvest to be able to breath. Bring some gloves. You never know if you will come across something pokey, sticky, or really dirty. Harvesting plants like nettle is a great example of when to use gloves. You’ll want tools such as scissors, shears, a shovel, and a digging stick. A large enough basket is nice to have as it holds everything you’ll need. Include a field guide on your adventure. You know, just in case you need to double check, or if you stumble upon a new plant you want to identify. Rosalee de la Foret, recommends alcohol for cleaning hands and tools, which I don’t think is a bad idea.
Shears and a hori hori are my two go-to tools for wildcrafting. The hori hori is a tool used to dig up roots. It’s great for cutting woody branches too. As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Check your emotions. Don’t wildcraft if you are too distracted or angry. If you are not fully present and open that’s when accidents happen. So, check your emotions. Be aware and focused while wildcrafting. I once was weeding my garden when I was in an angry mood. I was so rough and careless with all that I touched. I broke branches to my bean and tomato plants, sadly loosing tomatoes that where hanging ever so nicely from those branches. I was only weeding my garden at them time so, not wildcrafting. Or was it?
Just like we should be mindful and kind to others, it’s just as important to do that with plants. Be present with nature for a minute to help calm you down. Then wildcraft.
It’s time to start picking! I usually pick whenever I have time to get out there and do it. Some wildcrafters, or foragers, are very adamant about time of day, conditions etc.., when they pick. Make sure whenever you pick the plants are not wet. Wait until about 9:00 a.m. to pick as this is when the dew is usually off the plants.
Jim McDonald suggest using your senses while harvesting. I think this is a great rule of thumb, especially if you are picking for medicinal reasons. What he is referring to is if you are looking for an aromatic quality in a plant, smell it. Is it fragrant? How fragrant? The more so, the better it will be. Each quality bitter, astringent, so on and so forth, assess prior to picking to reap the best benefits of the plant.
Don’t pick every plant in sight. That is NOT ethical wildcrafting practice! I embarrassingly admit, this was once me. I picked every nettle leaf I could out of a patch in my yard. It barely grows there anymore. The proper etiquette is to pick about 10% of the plants in the vicinity. Don’t just stay in one area, move around and pick throughout the batch. Pick the healthiest plants and only what you need. I betcha there are others out there that could be eyeballing the same patch. Hopefully, they will be aware of picking only 10%.
Remember, be respectful and practice sustainable wildcrafting. This may require you to know a bit about the botany of a plant to understand how it reproduces. This is significant for sustainability. As a matter of fact, add it to the prep work.
How to gather the parts? Be wise when picking plants. Each plant is different, and every environment is different. Be observant about what is around. Be knowledge about the plant you are harvesting. Here is a guide to gather the parts:
- To pick leaves – leaves & stems should be picked before the plant has flowered.
- To pick the seeds – the seeds should be collected when they are ripe. I even collect them when they have dried out.
- To pick the roots – dig up the roots in early spring or fall when the leaves and flowers are not growing. This is when all the nutrients are in the root.
- To pick the flowers – depends on the flower. Some you can pick when they are buds, others when they are in full bloom. Research the plant you are harvesting to determine what is best for your needs.
- To pick the bark– Scrap the bark from a branch, not the trunk. Use vertical motions. Never cut a circle in a ring around the circumference of the tree. That will kill it. The outer bark can be discarded. Use the inner part.
- To pick the rhizomes –find the rhizome by letting the stem guide you to the underground portion. Once you find the rhizome find and cut the end a few inches away from the stem. Careful not to remove any other part of the plant.
After the harvest.
You’ve got your harvest. Sweet! Now what? I’ve hope you set aside enough time to for processing them.
Processing time. The sooner you get this done the better for the plants. The time I over harvested my nettle I didn’t leave enough time to process the leaves. I had more than I needed and much of what I had went into the compost. I suppose that’s not the worst place they could’ve ended up. Nonetheless, don’t let this be you. Lol. But, seriously.
Make sure you wash everything well. Roots take the longest. Be gentle with the flowers and leaves. Make sure that when drying your herbs, they have enough air circulation. Over time I found that some methods work great for some plants but, not as well for others. Hanging the herbs, or using a dehydrator, oven, freeze drying, laying herbs on paper towels, basket, or herb rack are all fine methods. Find the one that works best for you & the plant. Also, the herbs must be completely dry before storing, otherwise they will mold. Store in a cool, dark place. Jars work will.
I love wildcrafting because it puts me into a deep connection with nature. I am not among it, I am in it. It makes me feel empowered, and self-sufficient. It allows me to see and understand the details in nature.
I’ll soon share another post about drying and storing your harvest. Until then, happy wildcrafting.
For more information on wildcrafting check out the following sources that were helpful in drafting this article. Thanks for reading. And thanks to the herbalists, wildcrafters, and plants that I continually learn from.
- Brounstein, Howie. “Wildcrafting for Beginners”. Columbine School of Botanical Studies. botanicalstudies.net/wildcrafting/wildcrafting-for-beginners/. Viewed January 14, 2010.
- De la Foret, Rosalee. “Part 1: Introduction to Wildcrafting and the Ethics Involved”. Reference, Wildcrafting. http://www.herbmentor.learningherbs.com/wildcrafting. September 7, 2010.
- De la Foret, Rosalee. “Part 3: Tools of the Trade”. Reference, Wildcrafting. http://www.herbmentor.learningherbs.com/wildcrafting. September 28, 2010.
- De La Foret, Rosalee. “Part 4: Before You Harvest”. Reference, Wildcrafting. www. herbmentor.learningherbs.com/wildcrafting. October 13, 2010.
- De La Foret, Rosalee. “Part 5: Harvesting”. http://www.herbmentor.learningherbs.com/wildcrafting. October 27, 2010.
- McDonald, Jim. “Gathering Your Own Herbs”. Jim McDonald Herbalist. herbcraft.org/gathering.html. Viewed January 14, 2020.